Analysis: Long-Term Debt Crisis Is Even Worse Than CBO’s Dire Predictions

The National Debt Clock, a billboard-size digital display showing the increasing US debt, is seen on the corner of Sixth Avenue and West 44th Street on August 1, 2011 in New York City.
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The Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) dire budget outlook — projecting unprecedented federal debt with serious consequences in the coming years — is an underestimate and the situation is much more bleak, according to an alternate analysis released Tuesday.

The Freedom Partners Institute, a right-leaning nonprofit organization, argues the CBO’s projections “fail to take the complete economic forecast into account” by not including intra-governmental debt, that is, money owed to trust funds including Social Security and Medicare.

“This is a large portion of debt that is mounting and what we found is that if you extrapolate the rate of intra-governmental debt that we will have in 2026 — which is around 23 percent — out into the larger CBO projection, you actually see a debt accumulating at a much higher pace than even CBO predicts,” Andy Koenig, Freedom Partners’ senior policy adviser, said on a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

CBO projects that the debt will be 141 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2046, but under Freedom Partners’ analysis, the debt by 2046 will be 174 percent of GDP.

“So when we say 174 percent debt to GDP ratio, we believe that is what [the government] will actually have to borrow to meet the obligations that they have currently outlined in terms of entitlement spending,” Koenig added.

The report, authored by Koenig and policy associate Mary Kate Hopkins, explains, “Our calculations reveal that America is headed for bankruptcy much more quickly than CBO projects in its 2016 outlook. And when we reach that point, America will no longer be able to afford to pay our liabilities without significant spending reductions, debt restructuring, or tax increases—bringing with them devastating economic effects.”

While Freedom Partners says CBO failed to fully take the impact of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds into account, the budget office does not ignore them. The CBO’s budget outlook incorporates expected future spending on the programs.

CBO found that “by 2046 projected spending for [Social Security and the major health care programs] for people 65 or older accounts for about half of all federal noninterest spending.”

Koenig explained that the difference in the CBO’s projections for Social Security and Medicare, saying “Because [CBO does not] distinguish between what we are paying back to ourselves and what we are borrowing yearly from public debt, we can just not see that their projections take into consideration a growing amount of debt to pay for those when the trust fund is exhausted.”

He continued, “So if you look at the underlying data that CBO puts out you would expect that there would be, at some point, a large jump in the annual increases in public debt when we shifted from trust fund being empty to having to borrow to pay for Medicare and Social Security and you don’t see that jump.”